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Harry Houdini
Throughout his life, Harry Houdini claimed that he was born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin. In fact, he was born with the name Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His father was Mayer Samuel Weisz, a religious teacher. Ehrich was a child of his second wife, Cecilia Steiner; six of their children survived to adulthood. Mayer emigrated to America and changed the spelling of his last name to Weiss. He served as a rabbi to a Jewish congregation in Appleton. Stories of Houdini performing magic and escapes while in Appleton have never been verified. Houdini's mother claimed that as a child Houdini learned to open locked cabinets to get at pies and sweets she had baked, but the story may be more legend than fact. Mayer Weiss' religious views may have led to his dismissal as a rabbi and therefore, the family moved to Milwaukee when Ehrich (Houdini) was about eight. Houdini claimed that October 28, 1883 was the date of his first appearance before an audience. The nine year-old Houdini performed on a trapeze hung from a tree; Houdini performed as "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air."

Houdini's idol was the great French magician Robert-Houdin. When Ehrich started performing magic, he added an "i" to the end of his Robert Houdin's name and called himself "Houdini." The "Harry" is most likely an American version of his childhood nickname Ehrie. Harry Houdini began his professional career at age 17 doing magic shows before civic groups, in music halls, at sideshows, and at New Yorks Coney Island amusement park, where he, as Harry Houdini, sometimes performed 20 shows each day. He also worked with his brother Theo as The Houdini Brothers. This changed when Harry met Beatrice Raymond, a singer and dancer who was also attempting a career in show business. Eventually, in 1895, the Houdinis joined the Welsh Brothers Circus for six months. Harry did magic, Bess sang and danced, and together they performed a trick called "Metamorphosis", in which they switched places in a locked trunk. Not satisfied with the small scale of the act, Harry continued to work on new tricks and to develop his speaking voice and showmanship. Harry Houdini also became an expert at handcuffs. Arriving in a new town, Houdini would claim the ability to escape from any handcuffs provided by the local police. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows. Houdini offered $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs from which he could not escape, but he never had to pay. Through his increasingly complex escapes and his shrewd use of publicity, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, playing in cities across the country. Not satisfied with that low level of fame, however, Houdini decided to gamble by taking his act to Europe.

In 1900, Houdini's breakthrough came when he successfully broke free after being wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard. The publicity from that escape led more appearances and his fame quickly spread. Houdini eventually performed in Germany and then throughout Europe. Oftentimes Houdini called upon local police to restrain him, but he continually confounded the authorities and escaped. To increase publicity, Houdini also jumped into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini remained underwater long after many observers were certain he couldnt survive, only to spring up, waving the chains over his head.

In 1905, Harry Houdini was perfoming back in the United States. Some of his publicity stunts included: escaping from the prison cell that held the assassin of President James Garfield, escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and breaking free from a packing crate that had been nailed shut and immersed underwater. Houdini loved challenges but on one occasion in England, Houdini allowed the milk can to be filled with beer rather than water. As someone who never drank alcohol, Houdini was not used to the effects of the beer and had to be pulled to safety by his assistants. It was one of Houdini's rare failures.

Spiritualism is a term that is associated with the ability to communicate with the dead. Harry Houdini wanted to believe that such communication was possible, but after many years performing magic, Houdini was familiar with the methods utilized by phony spiritualists to fool the public. Harry Houdini lectured on the subject of fraudulent spiritualists and unmasked many in the cities he visited. In his act, Houdini demonstrated many of the tricks used by spiritualists and wrote a best-selling book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which detailed their deceptions. Because of his interest in spiritualism, Houdini developed a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who was a firm believer in spiritualism. Conan Doyle was convinced that psychic powers enabled Houdini to perform his stunning escapes, and refused to accept Houdini's denials and explanations. Eventually their disagreement over spiritualism and psychic ability led to an estrangement. The friendship ended as Harry Houdini and Doyle attacked each other publicly.

Houdini's Death
In 1926, Houdini invited a student to visit him backstage before the afternoon performance of his show. The next day, the student and two friends were chatting with Houdini in his dressing room when one of the students, an amateur boxer, asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow to his body above the waist, excluding his face. Houdini admitted that it was true and, despite his weakened state due to his injury and lack of sleep, gave the student permission to test him. Houdini began to rise from the couch where he was seated, but before he had time to tighten his abdomen muscles, the student punched him three times in the stomach. Houdini fell back on the couch, his face white. Although in pain, Houdini performed his show that afternoon. The pain was worse in the evening, but Houdini refused to consult a doctor.

The next day, October 24, despite chills and sweating, Houdini performed two more shows before the company moved on to Detroit, Michigan. Once there, Houdini finally saw a doctor, who urged that he immediately go to the hospital. Houdini refused and, despite a temperature of 102, went on to give his usual performance that night. Only after completing the show did Houdini finally agree to enter the hospital. When doctors operated, they found that Houdini's appendix had burst, causing peritonitis, a usually fatal disease in this age before the development of antibiotics. Another operation was later performed, but Houdini was given little hope of surviving. Bess, meanwhile, still suffering from food poisoning, was checked into the same hospital. Believing he was near death, Houdini reportedly shared a secret message with Bess to be used as proof that he was communicating with her from beyond the grave. She would know it was really him if she heard the words "Rosabelle, believe." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song that Bess had sung at Coney Island in the period when she met Houdini.

Harry Houdini died on the afternoon of Halloween, October 31, 1926, but the accomplishments of Harry Houdini would change the world forever.

Harry Houdini's funeral was held in New York City, where thousands of mourners lined the streets as the funeral procession passed. A representative of the Society of American Magicians broke a wand at the services, beginning a new tradition that has been used for Society members ever since. Houdini was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in Long Island, New York, beside his parents. Beneath Houdini's head was placed a pillow containing his mothers letters.


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